Category: New York

High Costs are not About Precarity

I’ve seen people who I think highly of argue that high construction costs in the United States are an artifact of precarity. The argument goes that the political support for public transportation there is so flimsy that agencies are forced to buy political support by spending more money than they need. This may include giving in to NIMBY pressure to use costlier but less impactful (or apparently less impactful) techniques, to spread money around with other government agencies and avoid fighting back, to build extravagant and fancier-looking but less standardized stations, and so on. The solution, per this theory, is to politically support public transportation construction more so that transit agencies will have more backing.

This argument also happens to be completely false, and the solution suggested is counterproductive. In fact, the worst cost blowouts are for the politically most certain projects; Second Avenue Subway enjoyed unanimous support in New York politics.

Cost-effectiveness under precarity

Three projects relevant to our work at the Transit Costs Project have been done exceptionally cost-effectively in an environment of political uncertainty: the T-bana, the LGV Sud-Est, and Bahn 2000.

T-bana

The original construction of the T-bana was done at exceptionally low cost. We go over this in the Sweden report to some extent, but, in short, between the 1950s and 70s, the total cost of the system’s construction was 5 billion kronor in 1975 prices, which built around 100 km, of which 57% are underground. In PPP 2022 dollars, this is $3.6 billion, or $35 million/km, not entirely but mostly underground. This was low for the time: for example, in London, the Victoria line was $122 million/km and the Jubilee line was $172 million/km (source, p. 78), and Italian costs in the 1960s and 70s were similar, averaging $129 million/km before 1970.

The era of Social Democrat dominance in Swedish politics on hindsight looks like one of consensus in favor of big public projects. But the T-bana itself was controversial. When the decision was made to build it in the 1940s, Stockholm County had about 1 million people; at the time, metros were present in much larger cities, like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, and it was uncertain that a city the size of Stockholm would need such a system. Its closest analog, Copenhagen, did not build such a system until the 1990s, when it was a metro region of 2 million. It was uncertain that Stockholm should need rapid transit, and there were arguments for and against it in the city. Nor was there any transit-first policy in postwar Sweden: urban planning was the same modernist combination of urban renewal, automobile scale, and tower-in-a-park housing, and outside Stockholm County, the Million Program projects were thoroughly car-oriented.

Construction costs in Sweden are a lot higher now than they were in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km, compared with a post-1990s Italian average of $220 million; British costs have exploded in tandem, so that now the Underground extensions clock at $600 million/km. Our best explanation is that the UK adopted what we call the globalized system of procurement, privatizing planning functions to consultants and privatizing risk to contractors, which creates more conflict; the UK also has an unusually high soft cost factor. From American data (and not just New York) and some British data, I believe that the roughly 2.5 cost premium of the UK over Italy is entirely reducible to such soft costs, procurement conflict, risk compensation, and excessive contingency. And yet, Sweden itself, with some elements of the same globalized system, maintains a roughly Italian cost level, albeit trending the wrong way.

And today, too, the politics of rail expansion in Sweden are uncertain. There was controversy over both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan, neither of which passed a cost-benefit analysis (for reasons that I believe impugn the cost-benefit analysis more than those projects); it was uncertain that either would be funded. Controversy remained over plans to build high-speed rail connecting Stockholm with Gothenburg and Malmö, and the newly-elected right-wing government just canceled them in order to prioritize investment in roads. Swedish rail projects today remain precarious, and have to justify themselves on cost and efficiency grounds.

LGV Sud-Est

Like nearly all other rich countries, France was hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis; economic growth there and in the US, Japan, and most of the rest of Western Europe would never be as high as it was between the end of WW2 and the 1970s (“Trente Glorieuses“). On hindsight, France’s response to the crisis models can-go governance, with an energy saving ad declaring “in France we don’t have oil, but we have ideas.” The French state built nuclear power plants with gusto, peaking around 90% of national electricity use – and even today’s reduced share, around 70%, is by a large margin the highest in the world. At the same time, it built a high-speed rail network, connecting Paris with most other provincial cities at some of the highest average speeds outside China between major cities, reaching about 230 km/h between Paris and Marseille and 245 km/h between Paris and Bordeaux; usage per capita is one of the highest in Europe and, measured in passenger-km, not too bad by East Asian standards.

But in fact, the first LGV, the LGV Sud-Est, was deeply controversial. At the time, the only high-speed rail network in operation was the Shinkansen, and while France learned more from Japan than any other European country (for example, the RER was influenced by Tokyo rail operations), the circumstances for intercity were completely different. SNCF had benefited from having done many of its own experiments with high-speed technology, but the business case was murky. SNCF had to innovate in running an open system, with extensive through-running to cities off the line, which Japan would only introduce in the 1990s with the Mini-Shinkansen.

Within the French state, the project was controversial. Anthony Perl’s New Departures details how there were people within the government who wanted to cancel it entirely as it was unaffordable. At the end, the French state didn’t finance the line, and required SNCF to find private loans on the international market, though it did guarantee those loans. It also delayed the line’s opening: instead of opening the entire line from Paris to Lyon in one go, it opened two-thirds of it on the Lyon side in 1981 and the last third into Paris in 1983, requiring trains to run on the classical line at low speed between Paris and Saint-Florentin for two years; in that era, phased opening was uncommon, and lines generally opened to the end at once, such as between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.

Construction was extraordinarily inexpensive. In PPP 2022 dollars, it cost $8.4 million/km. This is, by a margin, the lowest-cost high-speed rail line ever built that I know about. The Tokaido Shinkansen cost 380 billion yen, or in PPP 2022 dollars $40 million/km, representing a factor of two cost overrun that forced JNR’s head to resign. Spain has unusually low construction costs, and even there, Madrid-Seville was $15.7 million/km. SNCF innovated in every way possible to save money. Realizing that high-speed trains could climb steeper grades, it built the LGV Sud-Est with a ruling grade of 3.5%, which has since become a norm in and around Europe, compared with the Shinkansen’s 1.5-2%; the line has no tunnels, unlike the classical Paris-Lyon line. It built the line on the ground rather than on viaducts, and balanced cut and fill locally so that material cut to grade the line could be used for nearby fill. Thanks to the line’s low costs and high ridership, the financial return on investment for SNCF has been 15%, and social return on investment has been 30% (source, pp. 11-12).

This cost-effectiveness would never recur. The line’s success ensured that LGV construction would enjoy total political backing. The core features of LGV construction are still there – earthworks rather than viaducts, 3.5% grades, limited tunneling, overcompensation of landowners by about 30% with land swap deals to defuse the possibility of farmer riots. But the next few lines cost about $20 million/km or slightly less, and this cost has since crept up to about $30 million/km or even more. This remains low by international standards (but not by Spanish ones), but the trend is negative.

SNCF is coasting on its success from a generation ago, secure that funding for LGVs and state support in political contention is forthcoming, and the routing decisions have grown worse. In response to NIMBYism in Provence, the French state assented to a tunnel-heavy route, including a conversion of Marseille from an at-grade terminal to an underground through-station, akin to Stuttgart 21, which has not been done before in France, and the resulting high costs have led to delays on the project. Operations have grown ever more airline-style, experimenting with low-cost airline imitation to the point of reducing fare receipts without any increase in ridership. One of the French consultants we’ve spoken with said that their company’s third-party design costs are 7-8% of the hard costs, which figure is similar to what we’ve seen in Italy and to the in-house rate in Spain – but the same consultant told us that there is so much bloat at SNCF that when it designs its own projects, the costs are not 7% but 25%, a figure in line with American rates.

Bahn 2000

Switzerland has Europe’s strongest passenger rail network by all measures: highest traffic measured by passenger-km per capita, highest modal split for passenger-km, highest traffic density. Its success is well-known in surrounding countries, which are gradually either imitate its methods or, in the case of Germany, pretending to do so. It has achieved its success through continuous improvement over the generations, but the most notable element of this system was implemented in the 1990s as part of the Bahn 2000 project.

The current system is based on a national-scale clockface system (“Takt”) with trains repeating hourly, with the strongest links, like the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle, running every half hour. Connections are timed in those three cities and several others, called knots, so that trains enter each station a few minutes before the connection time (usually the hour) and depart a few minutes after, permitting passengers to get between most pairs of Swiss cities with short transfers. Reliability is high, thanks to targeted investments designed to ensure that trains could make those connections in practice and not just in theory. Further planning centers adding more knots and expanding this system to the periphery of Switzerland.

Switzerland is famous for its consensus governance system – its plural executive is drawn from the four largest parties in proportion to their votes, with no coalition vs. opposition politics. But the process that led to the decision to adopt Bahn 2000 was not at all one of unanimity. There had been plans to build high-speed rail, as there were nearly everywhere else in Western Europe. But they were criticized for their high costs, and there was extensive center-right pressure to cut the budget. Bahn 2000 was thus conceived in an environment of austerity. Many of its features were explicitly about saving money:

  • The knot system is connected with running trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. Investments in speed are pursued only insofar as they permit trains to make their connections; higher speeds are considered gratuitous.
  • Bilevel trains are an alternative to lengthening the platforms.
  • Timed overtakes and meets are an alternative to more extensive multi-tracking of lines.
  • Investment in better timetabling and systems (the electronics side of the electronics-before-concrete slogan) is cheaper than adding tunnels and viaducts.

Swiss megaprojects have to go to referendum, and sometimes the referendums return a no; this happened with the Zurich U-Bahn twice, leading to the construction of the S-Bahn instead. All Swiss planners know in a country this small and this fiscally conservative, any extravagance will lead to rejection. The result is that they’ve instead optimized construction at all levels, and even their unit costs of tunneling are low; thanks to such optimization, Switzerland has been able to build a fairly extensive medium-speed rail system, with more tunneling per capita than Germany (let alone France), and with two S-Bahn trunk tunnels in Zurich, where no German city today has more than one.

The American situation

The worst offenders in the United States are not at all politically precarious. There is practically unanimous consensus in New York about the necessity of Second Avenue Subway. At no point was the project under any threat. There is an ideological right in the city, rooted less in party politics and more in the New York Post and the Manhattan Institute, with a law-and-order agenda and hostility to unions and to large government programs, but at no point did they call for cancellation; the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas has proposed pension cuts for workers and rule changes reducing certain benefits, but not canceling Second Avenue Subway.

At intercity scale, the same is true of Northeast Corridor investment. The libertarian and conservative pundits who say passenger rail is a waste of money tend to except the Northeast Corridor, or at least its southern half. When the Republicans won the 2010 midterm election, the new chair of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-FL), proposed a bill to seek private concessionaires to run intercity rail on the corridor. He did not propose canceling train service, even though in the wake of the same election, multiple conservative governors canceled intercity rail investments in their state, both high-speed (Florida) and low-speed (Wisconsin, Ohio).

In fact, both programs – New York subway expansion and the Northeast Corridor – are characterized by continuity across partisan shifts, as in more established consensus governance systems. The Northeast Corridor is especially notable for how little role ideological or partisan politics has played so far. New York has micromanagement by politicians – Andrew Cuomo had his pet projects in Penn Station Access and the backward-facing LaGuardia air train, and now Kathy Hochul has hers in the Interborough Express – but Second Avenue Subway was internal, and besides, political micromanagement is a different problem from political precarity.

And neither of these programs has engaged in any cost control. To the contrary, both are run as if money is infinite. The MTA would surrender to NIMBYs (“good neighbor policy”) and to city agencies looking to extract money from it. It built oversize stations. It spent money protecting buildings from excessive settlement that have been subsequently demolished for redevelopment at higher density.

The various agencies involved in the Northeast Corridor, likewise, are profligate, and not for lack of political support. Connecticut is full of NIMBYs; one of the consultants working on the plan a few years ago told me there was informal pressure not to ruffle feathers and not to touch anything in the wealthiest suburbs in the state, those of Fairfield County. In fact, high-speed rail construction would require significant house demolitions in the state’s second wealthiest town, Darien – but Darien is so infamously exclusive (“Darien rhymes with Aryan,” say other suburbanites in the area) that the rest of the region feels little solidarity with it.

NIMBYs aside, there has not been any effort at coordinating the different agencies in the Northeast along anything resembling the Swiss Takt system. This is not about precarity, because this is not a precarious project; this is about total ignorance and incuriosity about best practices, which emanate from a place that doesn’t natively speak English and doesn’t trade in American political references.

The Green Line Extension

Boston’s GLX is a fascinating example of cost blowouts without precarity. The history of the project is that its first iteration was pushed by Governor Deval Patrick (D), with the support of groups that sued the state for its delays in planning the project in the 1990s, as a court-mandated mitigation for the extra car traffic induced by the construction of the Big Dig. Patrick instituted a good neighbor policy, in which everything a community group wanted, it would get. Thus, stations were to become neighborhood signatures, and the project was laden with unrelated investments, called betterments, like a $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path.

At no point in the eight years Patrick was in power was there a political threat to the project. It was court-mandated, and the extractive local groups that live off of suing the government favored it. The Obama administration was generous with federal stimulus funding, and the designs were rushed in order to use stimulus funding to pay for the project’s design, which would be done by consultants rather than with an expansion of in-house hiring. It’s in this atmosphere of profligacy that the project’s cost exploded to, in today’s money, around $3.5 billion, for 7 km of light rail in existing rights-of-way (albeit ones requiring overpass reconstruction).

The project did fall under political threat, after Charlie Baker (R) won the 2014 election. Baker’s impact on Massachusetts governance is fascinating, in that he unambiguously cut its budget significantly in the short run, but also had both before (as budget director in the 1990s) and during (through his actions as governor) wrecked the state’s long-term ability to execute infrastructure, setting up a machine intended to privatize the state and avoiding any in-house hiring. Nonetheless, the direct impact of precarity on GLX was to reduce scope: the betterments were removed and the stations were changed from too big to too small. The final cost was $2.3 billion, or around $2.8 billion in 2022 dollars, and half of that was sunk cot from the previous iteration.

There was no expectation that the project would be canceled – indeed, it was not. A Republican victory was unexpected in a state this left-wing. Then, as Baker was taking office, past governors from both parties expressed optimism that he would get not just GLX done but also the much more complex North-South Rail Link tunnel. Nor did contractors have their contracts yanked unexpectedly, which would get them to bid higher for risk compensation. Baker cold-shouldered not jut NSRL but also much smaller investments in commuter rail, but at no point was anyone stiffed in the process. No: the Patrick-era project was just poorly managed.

Project selection

As one caveat, I want to point out a place where precarity does lead to poor project cost-effectiveness: the project selection stage, in the context of tax referendums, especially in Southern California. None of this leads to high per-kilometer costs – Los Angeles’s are exactly as bad as in the rest of the United States – but it does lead to poor project selection, as an unintended consequence of anti-tax New Right politics.

The California-specific issue is that raising taxes requires a referendum, with a two-thirds vote. Swiss referendums are by simple majority, or at most double majority – but in practice most referendums that have a popular vote majority, even a small one, also have a double majority when needed, and in the last 15 years I believe the only two times they didn’t had the double majority veto overturning a 1.5% margin and a 9% margin.

California’s requirement of a two-thirds majority was intended to stop wasteful spending and taxation, but has had the opposite effect. In and around San Francisco, the voters are sufficiently left-wing that two-thirds majorities for social policy are not hard to obtain. But in Southern California, they are not; to build public transportation infrastructure, Los Angeles and San Diego County governments cannot rely on ideology, but instead cut deals with local, non-ideological actors through promising them a piece of the package. Los Angeles measures for transit expansion are, by share of money committed, largely not about transit expansion but operations, new buses, or leakage to roads and bridges; then, what does go to transit expansion is divvied by region, with each region getting something, no matter how cost-ineffective, while core improvements are neglected and so are cross-regional connections (since the local extractive actors aren’t going to ride the trains and can’t tell a circumferential project is useful for them).

This is not a US-wide phenomenon. It’s not even California-wide: this problem is absent from the Bay Area, where BART decided against an expansion to Livermore that was unpopular among technically-oriented advocates, and would like to build more core capacity if it could do so for much less than a billion dollars per km. New York does not have it at all (for one, it doesn’t require two-thirds majorities for budgeting).

At intercity scale, this precarity does cause Amtrak to maximize how many states and congressional districts it runs money-losing daily trains in. But wasting money on night trains and on peripheral regions is hardly a US-only problem – Japan National Railways did that until well past privatization, when its successors spun off money-losing branch lines to prefecture-subsidized third sector railways. This is not at all why there is no plan for Northeastern intercity rail that is worth its weight in dirt: Northeastern rail improvements have been amply funded relative to objective need (if not relative to American costs), and solid investments in the core coexist with wastes of money on the periphery of the network in many countries.

The issue of politicization

The precarious, low-cost examples all had to cut costs because of fiscal pressure. However, in all three, the pressure did not include any politicization of engineering questions. Sweden was setting up a civil service modeled on the American Bureau of Public Roads, currently the Federal Highway Administration, which in the middle of the 20th century was a model of depoliticized governance. France and Switzerland have strong civil service bureaucracies – if anything SNCF is too self-contained and needs reorganization, just not if it’s led by the usual French elites or by people from the airline industry.

Importantly, low-cost countries with more clientelism and politicization of the state tend to be more deferential to the expertise of engineers. Greece has a far worse problem of overreliance on political appointees than the United States, let alone the other European democracies; but engineering is somewhat of an exception. Hispanic and Portuguese-speaking cultures put great prestige on engineering, reducing the extent of political micromanagement, even in countries without strong apolitical civil service bureaucracies. Even in Turkey, the politicization of public transportation is entirely at macro level: AKP promises to prioritize investment in areas that vote for it and has denied financing to the Istanbul Metro since the city flipped to the opposition (the city instead borrows money from the European Investment Bank), but below that level there is no micromanagement.

The American examples, in contrast, show much more political micromanagement. This is part of the same package as the privatization of state planning in the globalized system; in the United States often there was never the depoliticization that most of the rest of the developed and middle-income world had, but on top of that, the tendency has been to shut down in-house planning departments or radically shrink them and replace them with consultants. The consultants are then supervised by political appointees with no real qualifications to head capital programs, and the remaining civil servants are browbeaten not to disagree with the political appointees’ proclamations.

Those political appointees rarely measure themselves by any criteria of infrastructure utility. Even in New York they and the managers don’t consistently use the system; in Los Angeles, they use it about as often as the executive director of a well-endowed charity eats at a soup kitchen. To them, the cost is itself a measure of success – and this is true of other agencies, which treat obtaining other people’s money as a mark of achievement and as testament to their power. This behavior then cascades to local advocacy groups, which try to push solutions that maximize outside funding and are at bet indifferent and at worst actively hostile to any attempt at efficiency.

Just giving more support to agencies in their current configuration is not going to help. To the contrary, it only confirms that profligacy gets rewarded. A program of depoliticization of the state is required in tandem with expanding in-house hiring and reversing the globalized system, and the political appointees and the managers and political advocates who are used to dealing with them don’t belong in this program.

Edge Cities With and Without Historic Cores

An edge city is a dense, auto-oriented job center arising from nearby suburban areas, usually without top-down planning. The office parks of Silicon Valley are one such example: the area had a surplus of land and gradually became the core of the American tech industry. In American urbanism, Tysons in Virginia is a common archetype: the area was a minor crossroads until the Capital Beltway made it unusually accessible by car, providing extensive auto-oriented density with little historic core.

But there’s a peculiarity, I think mainly in the suburbs of New York. Unlike archetypal edge cities like Silicon Valley, Tysons, Century City in Los Angeles, or Route 128 north of Boston, some of the edge cities of New York are based on historic cores. Those include White Plains and Stamford, which have had booms in high-end jobs in the last 50 years due to job sprawl, but also Mineola, Tarrytown, and even New Brunswick and Morristown.

The upshot is that it’s much easier to connect these edge cities to public transportation than is typical. In Boston, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out good last mile connections from commuter rail stations. Getting buses to connect outlying residential areas and shopping centers to town center stations is not too hard, but then Route 128 is completely unviable without some major redesign of its road network: the office parks front the freeway in a way that makes it impossible to run buses except dedicated shuttles from one office park to the station, which could never be frequent enough for all-day service. Tysons is investing enormous effort in sprawl repair, which only works because the Washington Metro could be extended there with multiple stations. Far and away, these edge cities are the most difficult case for transit revival for major employment centers.

And in New York, because so much edge city activity is close to historic cores, this is far easier. Stamford and White Plains already have nontrivial if very small transit usage among their workers, usually reverse-commuters who live in New York and take Metro-North. Mineola could too if the LIRR ran reverse-peak service, but it’s about to start doing so. Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow could be transit-accessible. The New Jersey edge cities are harder – Edison and Woodbridge have lower job density than Downtown Stamford and Downtown White Plains – but there are some office parks that could be made walkable from the train stations.

I don’t know what the history of this peculiar feature is. White Plains and Mineola are both county seats and accreted jobs based on their status as early urban centers in regions that boomed with suburban sprawl in the middle of the 20th century. Tarrytown happened to be the landfall of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Perhaps this is what let them develop into edge cities even while having a much older urban history than Tysons (a decidedly non-urban crossroads until the Beltway was built), Route 128, or Silicon Valley (where San Jose was a latecomer to the tech industry).

What’s true is that all of these edge cities, while fairly close to train stations, are auto-oriented. They’re transit-adjacent but not transit-oriented, in the following ways:

  • The high-rise office buildings are within walking distance to the train station, but not with a neat density gradient in which the highest development intensity is nearest the station.
  • The land use at the stations is parking garages for the use of commuters who drive to the station and use the train as a shuttle from a parking lot to Manhattan, rather than as public transportation the way subway riders do.
  • The streets are fairly hostile to pedestrians, featuring fast car traffic and difficult crossing, without any of the walkability features that city centers have developed in the last 50 years.

The street changes required are fairly subtle. Let us compare White Plains with Metrotown, both image grabs taken from the same altitude:

These are both edge cities featuring a train station, big buildings, and wide roads. But in Metrotown, the big buildings are next to the train station, and the flat-looking building to its north is the third-largest shopping mall in Canada. The parking goes behind the buildings, with some lots adjoining Kingsway, which has a frequent trolleybus (line 19) but is secondary as a transportation artery to SkyTrain. Farther away, the residential density remains high, with many high-rises in the typical thin-and-tall style of Vancouver. In contrast, in White Plains, one side of the station is a freeway with low-density residential development behind it, and the other is parking garages with office buildings behind them instead of the reverse.

The work required to fix this situation is not extensive. Parking must be removed and replaced with tall buildings, which can be commercial or residential depending on demand. This can be done as part of a transit-first strategy at the municipal level, but can also be compelled top-down if the city objects, since the MTA (and other Northeastern state agencies) has preemption power over local zoning on land it owns, including parking lots and garages.

On the transit side, the usual reforms for improvements in suburban trains and buses would automatically make this viable: high local frequency, integrated bus-rail timetables (to replace the lost parking), integrated fares, etc. The primary target for such reforms is completely different – it’s urban and inner-suburban rail riders – but the beauty of the S-Bahn or RER concept is that it scales well for extending the same high quality of service to the suburbs.

Schedule Planners as a Resource

The Effective Transit Alliance published its statement on Riders Alliance’s Six-Minute Service campaign, which proposes to run every subway line in New York and the top 100 bus routes every (at worst) six minutes every day from morning to evening. We’re positive on it, even more than Riders Alliance is. We go over how frequency benefits riders, as I wrote here and here, but also over how it makes planning easier. It is the latter benefit I want to go over right now: schedule planning staff is a resource, just as drivers and outside capital are, and it’s important for transit agencies to institute systems that conserve this resource and avoid creating unnecessary work for planners.

The current situation in New York

Uday Schultz writes about how schedule planning is done in New York. There’s an operations planning department, with 350 budgeted positions as of 2021 of which 284 are filled, down from 400 and 377 respectively in 2016. The department is responsible for all aspects of schedule planning: base schedules but also schedules for every service change (“General Order” or GO in short).

Each numbered or lettered route is timetabled on it own. The frequency is set by a guideline coming from peak crowding: at any off-peak period, at the most crowded point of a route, passenger crowding is supposed to be 25% higher than the seated capacity of the train; at rush hour, higher standee crowding levels are tolerated, and in practice vary widely by route. This way, two subway routes that share tracks for a long stretch will typically have different frequencies, and in practice, as perceived by passengers, off-peak crowding levels vary and are usually worse than the 25% standee factor.

Moreover, because planning is done by route, two trains that share tracks will have separate schedule plans, with little regard for integration. Occasionally, as Uday points out, this leads to literally impossible schedules. More commonly, this leads to irregular gaps: for example, the E and F trains run at the same frequency, every 4 minutes peak and every 12 minutes on weekends, but on weekends they are offset by just 2 minutes from each other, so on the long stretch of the Queens Boulevard Line where they share the express tracks, passengers have a 2-minute wait followed by a 10-minute wait.

Why?

The current situation creates more work for schedule planners, in all of the following ways:

  • Each route is run on its own set of frequencies.
  • Routes that share tracks can have different frequencies, requiring special attention to ensure that trains do not conflict.
  • Each period of day (morning peak, midday, afternoon peak, evening) is planned separately, with transitions between peak and off-peak; there are separate schedules for the weekend.
  • There are extensive GOs, each requiring not just its own bespoke timetable but also a plan for ramping down service before the start of the GO and ramping it up after it ends.

This way, a department of 284 operations planners is understaffed and cuts corners, leading to irregular and often excessively long gaps between trains. In effect, managerial rules for how to plan trains have created makework for the planners, so that an objectively enormous department still has too much work to do and cannot write coherent schedules.

Creating less work for planners

Operations planners, like any other group of employees, are a resource. It’s possible to get more of this resource by spending more money, but office staff is not cheap and American public-sector hiring has problems with uncompetitive salaries. Moreover, the makework effect doesn’t dissipate if more people are hire – it’s always possible to create more work for more planners, for example by micromanaging frequency at ever more granular levels.

To conserve this resource, multiple strategies should be used:

Regular frequencies

If all trains run on the same frequency all day, there’s less work to do, freeing up staff resources toward making sure that the timetables work without any conflict. If a distinction between peak and base is required, as on the absolute busiest routes like the E and F, then the base should be the same during all off-peak periods, so that only two schedules (peak and off-peak) are required with a ramp-up and ramp-down at the transition. This is what the six-minute service program does, but it could equally be done with a more austere and worse-for-passengers schedule, such as running trains every eight minutes off-peak.

Deinterlining

Reducing the extent of reverse-branching would enable planning more parts of the system separately from one another without so much conflict. Note that deinterlining for the purposes of good passenger service has somewhat different priorities from deinterlining for the purposes of coherent planning. I wrote about the former here and here. For the latter, it’s most important to reduce the number of connected components in the track-sharing graph, which means breaking apart the system inherited from the BMT from that inherited from the IND.

The two goals share a priority in fixing DeKalb Avenue, so that in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, the B and D share tracks as do the N and Q (today, in Brooklyn, the B shares track with the Q whereas the D shares track with the N): DeKalb Junction is a timetabling mess and trains have to wait two minutes there for a slot. Conversely, the main benefit of reverse-branching, one-seat rides to more places, is reduced since the two Manhattan trunks so fed, on Sixth Avenue and Broadway, are close to each other.

However, to enable more convenient planning, the next goal for deinterlining must be to stop using 11th Street Connection in regular service, which today transitions the R from the BMT Broadway Line and 60th Street Tunnel to the IND Queens Boulevard local tracks. Instead, the R should go where Broadway local trains go, that is Astoria, while the Broadway express N should go to Second Avenue Subway to increase service there. The vacated local service on Queens Boulevard should go to IND trunks in Manhattan, to Eighth or Sixth Avenue depending on what’s available based on changes to the rest of the system; currently, Eighth Avenue is where there is space. Optionally, no new route should be added, and instead local service on Queens Boulevard could run as a single service (currently the M) every 4 minutes all day, to match peak E and F frequencies.

GO reform

New York uses too many GOs, messing up weekend service. This is ostensibly for maintenance and worker safety, but maintenance work gets done elsewhere with fewer changes (as in Paris or Berlin) or almost none (as in Tokyo) – and Berlin and Tokyo barely have nighttime windows for maintenance, Tokyo’s nighttime outages lasting at most 3-4 hours and Berlin’s available only five nights a week. The system should push back against ever more creative service disruptions for work and demand higher maintenance productivity.

TransitCenter’s Commuter Rail Proposal

Last week, TransitCenter released a proposal for how to use commuter rail more effectively within New York. The centerpiece of the proposal is to modify service so that the LIRR and Metro-North can run more frequently to stations within the city, where today they serve the suburbs almost exclusively; at the few places near the outer end of the city where they run near the subway, they have far less ridership, often by a full order of magnitude, which pattern repeats itself around North America. There is much to like about what the proposal centers; unfortunately, it falls short by proposing half-hourly frequencies, which, while better than current off-peak service, are far short of what is needed within the city.

Commuter rail and urban ridership

TransitCenter’s proposal centers urban riders. This is a welcome addition to city discourse on commuter rail improvement. The highest-ridership, highest-traffic form of mainline rail is the fundamentally urban S-Bahn or RER concept. Truly regional trains, connecting distinct centers, coexist with them but always get a fraction of the traffic, because public transit ridership is driven by riders in dense urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods.

A lot of transit and environmental activists are uncomfortable with the idea of urban service. I can’t tell why, but too many proposals by people who should know better keep centering the suburbs. But in reality, any improvement in commuter rail service that does not explicitly forgo good practices in order to discourage urban ridership creates new urban ridership more than anything else. There just aren’t enough people in the suburbs who work in the city (even in the entire city, not just city center) for it to be any other way.

TransitCenter gets it. The proposal doesn’t even talk about inner-suburban anchors of local lines just outside the city, like Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Hempstead (and a future update of this program perhaps should). No: it focuses on the people near LIRR and Metro-North stations within the city, highlighting how they face the choice between paying extra for infrequent but fast trains to Midtown and riding very slow buses to the edge of the subway system. As these neighborhoods are for the most part on the spectrum from poor to lower middle-class, nearly everyone chooses the slow option, and ridership at the city stations is weak, except in higher-income Northeast Queens near the Port Washington Branch (see 2012-4 data here, PDF-pp. 183-207), and even there, Flushing has very little ridership since the subway is available as an alternative.

To that effect, TransitCenter proposes gradually integrating the fares between commuter rail and urban transit. This includes fare equalization and free transfers: if a bus-subway-bus trip between the Bronx and Southern Brooklyn is covered by the $127 monthly pass then so should a shorter bus-commuter rail trip between Eastern Queens or the North Bronx and Manhattan.

Interestingly, the report also shows that regionwide, poorer people have better job access by transit than richer people, even when a fare budget is imposed that excludes commuter rail. The reason is that in New York, suburbanization is a largely middle-class phenomenon, and in the suburbs, the only jobs accessible by mass transit within an hour are in Midtown Manhattan, whereas city residents have access to a greater variety of jobs by the bus and subway system. But this does not mean that the present system is equitable – rich suburbanites have cars and can use them to get to edge city jobs such as those of White Plains and Stamford, and can access the entire transit network without the fare budget whereas poorer people do have a fare budget.

The issue of frequency

Unfortunately, TransitCenter’s proposal on frequency leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it’s out of incrementalism, of the same kind that shows up in its intermediate steps toward fare integration. The report suggests to increase frequency to the urban stations to a train every half an hour, which it phrases in the traditional commuter rail way of trains per day: 12 roundtrips in a six-hour midday period.

And this is where the otherwise great study loses me. Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Flushing are all right next to subway stations. The LIRR charges higher fares there, but these are fairly middle-class areas – richer than Rosedale in Southeast Queens on the Far Rockaway Branch, which still gets more ridership than all three. No: the problem in these inner areas is frequency, and a train every half hour just doesn’t cut it when the subway is right there and comes every 2-3 minutes at rush hour and every 4-6 off-peak.

In this case, incremental increases from hourly to half-hourly frequency don’t cut it. The in-vehicle trip is so short that a train every half hour might as well not exist, just as nobody runs subway trains every half hour (even late at night, New York runs the subway every 20 minutes). At outer-urban locations like Bayside, Wakefield, and Rosedale, the absolute worst that should be considered is a train every 15 minutes, and even that is suspect and 10 minutes is more secure. Next to the subway, the absolute minimum is a train every 10 minutes.

All three mainlines currently radiating out of Manhattan in regular service – the Harlem Line, the LIRR Main Line, and the Port Washington Branch – closely parallel very busy subway trunk lines. One of the purposes of commuter rail modernization in New York must be decongestion of the subway, moving passengers from overcrowded 4, 5, 7, E, and F trains to underfull commuter trains. The LIRR and Metro-North are considered at capacity when passengers start having to use the middle seats, corresponding to 80% of seated capacity; the subway is considered at capacity when there are so many standees they don’t meet the standard of 3 square feet per person (3.59 people/m^2).

To do this, it’s necessary to not just compete with buses, but also directly compete with the subway. This is fine: Metro-North and the LIRR can act as additional express capacity, filling trains every 5 minutes using a combination of urban ridership and additional ridership at inner suburbs. TransitCenter has an excellent proposal for how to improve service quality at the urban stations but then inexplicably doesn’t go all the way and proposes a frequency that’s too low.

The Official Brooklyn Bus Redesign is Out

The MTA just released a draft of the Brooklyn bus redesign it and its consultant had been working on. It is not good. I’m not completely sure why this is – the Queens redesign was a good deal better, and our take on it at the Effective Transit Alliance was decidedly positive. But in the case of Brooklyn, the things that worked in Queens are absent. Overall, the theme of this is stasis – the changes to the network are minor, and the frequencies are to remain insufficiently low for good service. The only good thing about this is stop consolidation, which does not require spending any money on consultants and is a straightforward fix.

This is especially frustrating to me because my first project for Marron, before the Transit Costs Project, was a redesign proposal. The proposal can be read here, with discussion in blog posts here, here, and here. The official reaction we got was chilly, but the redesign doesn’t look anything like a more politic version, just one produced at much higher consultant cost while doing very little.

The four-color scheme

The Brooklyn project retains the Queens redesign’s four-color scheme of buses, to be divided into local (green), limited (red), Select Bus Service (blue), and rush (purple). The local buses are supposed to stop every 300-400 meters, which is not the best (the optimum for Brooklyn is about 400-500) but is a good deal better than the current spacing of about 200-250. The other three kinds of buses are more express, some running on the same routes as local buses as express overlays and some running on streets without local service.

In Queens, this four-way distinction emerges from the pattern in which in neighborhoods beyond the subway’s reach, bus usage is extremely peaky toward the subway. The purpose of the rush route is to get people to the subway terminal, such as Flushing or Jamaica, with not just longer stop spacing but also long nonstop sections close to the terminal where local service exists as an overlay, imitating the local and express patterns of peaky commuter rail operations in New York. I still think it’s not a good idea and buses should run at a more uniform interstation at higher frequency. But over the long stretches of Eastern Queens, the decision is fairly close and while rush routes are not optimal, they’re not much worse than the optimum. In contrast, Brooklyn is nothing like Queens: people travel shorter distances, and long routes are often used as circumferential subway connectors with ample turnover.

Ironically, this is something the MTA and its consultants understood: the Brooklyn map is largely green, whereas that in Queens has a more even mix of all four colors. Nonetheless, some rush routes are retained and so are some limited-only routes, in a way that subtracts value: if nearly all buses in Brooklyn offer me something, I should expect it on the other buses as well, whereas the rush-only B26 on Halsey Street is different in a way that isn’t clear.

In general, the notable feature of our redesign, unlike the more common American ones, is that there is no distinction among the different routes. Some are more frequent than others, but all have very high base frequency. This is because Brooklyn has unusually isotropic travel: density decreases from the East River south- and eastward, but the subway network also thins out and these effects mostly cancel out, especially with the high density of some housing projects in Coney Island; the busiest buses include some running only within Southern Brooklyn, like the B6 and B82 circumferentials.

In contrast, small-city redesigns tend to occur in a context with a strong core network and a weak peripheral network (“coverage routes,” which exist to reassure loud communities with no transit ridership that they can get buses too), and the redesign process tends to center this distinction and invest in the stronger core network. Queens has elements that look like this, if you squint your eyes sufficiently. Brooklyn has none: the isotropic density of most of the borough ensures that splitting buses into separate classes is counterproductive.

Frequency

The frequency in the proposed system is, frankly, bad. The MTA seems to believe that the appropriate frequency for urban mass transit is a train or bus every 10 minutes. This is acceptable in the suburban neighborhoods of Berlin or the outermost parts of New York, like the Rockaways and the eastern margin of Queens. In denser areas, including all of Brooklyn, it is not acceptable. People travel short distances: citywide, the average trip distance before corona was 3.4 km, which works out to 18 minutes at average New York bus speed (source: NTD 2019). In Brooklyn, the dense mesh of buses going between subway lines rather than to them makes the average even slightly lower. This means that very high frequency is a high priority.

So bad is the MTA’s thinking about frequency that core routes in the borough are split into local and limited variants, each running every 10 minutes off-peak, including some of the busiest corridors in the borough, like the outer circumferential B6 and B82 and the more inner-circumferential B35 on Church (split in the plan into a local B35 and an SBS B55). This is not changed from the current design, even though it’s easy to do so in the context of general consolidation of stops.

To make this even worse, there does not appear to be any increase in service-km, judging by the plan’s lack of net increase in frequency. This is bad planning: bus operating costs come from time (driver’s wage, mainly) and not distance, and the speedup provided by the stop consolidation should fuel an increase in frequency.

The Battery Tunnel

The most annoying aspect, at least to me, is the lack of a bus in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, connecting Manhattan with Red Hook. Red Hook is isolated from the subway and from the rest of Brooklyn thanks to the freeway, and has bus connections only internally to Brooklyn where in fact a short bus route through the tunnel would beat bus-subway connections to Lower Manhattan.

We got the idea for the inclusion of such a bus service from planners that we spoke to when we wrote our own redesign. The service is cheap to provide because of the short length of the route, and would complement the rest of the network. It was also popular in the neighborhood meetings that tee consultants ran, we are told. And yet, it was deleted on a whim.

Stop Imitating the High Line

I streamed a longer version of this on Twitch on Tuesday, but the recording cut out, so instead of uploading to YouTube as a vlog, I’m summarizing it here

Manhattan has an attractive, amply-used park in the Meatpacking District, called the High Line. Here it is, just west of 10th Avenue:

It was originally a freight rail branch of the New York Central, running down the West Side of Manhattan to complement the railroad’s main line to Grand Central, currently the Harlem Line of Metro-North. As such, it was a narrow el with little direct interface with the neighborhood, unlike the rapid transit els like that on Ninth Avenue. The freight line was not useful for long: the twin inventions of trucking and electrification led to the deurbanization of manufacturing to land-intensive, single-story big box-style structures. Thus, for decades, it lay unused. As late as 2007, railfans were dreaming about reactivating it for passenger rail use, but it was already being converted to a park, opening in 2009. The High Line park is a successful addition to the neighborhood, and has spawned poor attempt at imitation, like the Low Line (an underground rapid transit terminal since bypassed by the subway), the Queensway (a similar disused line in Central Queens), and some plans in Jersey City. So what makes the High Line so good?

  1. The neighborhood, as can be seen above in the picture, has little park space. The tower-in-a-park housing visible to the east of the High Line, Chelsea-Elliott Houses, has some greenery but it’s not useful as a neighborhood park. The little greenery to the west is on the wrong side of 12th Avenue, a remnant of the West Side Highway that is not safe for pedestrians to cross, car traffic is so fast and heavy. Thus, it provides a service that the neighborhood previously did not have.
  2. The area has very high density, both residential and commercial. Chelsea is a dense residential neighborhood, but at both ends of the line there is extensive commercial development. Off-screen just to the south, bounded by Eighth, Ninth, 15th, and 16th, is Google’s building in New York, with more floor area than the Empire State Building and almost as much as One World Trade Center. Off-screen just to the north is the Hudson Yards development, which was conceived simultaneously with the High Line. This guarantees extensive foot traffic through the park.
  3. The linear park is embedded in a transit-rich street grid. Getting on at one end and off at the other is not much of a detour to the pedestrian tourist, or to anyone with access to the subway near both ends, making it a convenient urban trail.

These three conditions are not common, and trying to replicate the same linear park in their absence is unlikely to produce good results. For example, consider the Rockaway Cutoff, or Rockaway Beach Branch:

The Cutoff has two competing proposals for what to do with this disused LIRR branch: the Queenslink, aiming to convert it to a rapid transit branch (connecting to the subway, not the LIRR), and the Queensway, aiming to convert it to a linear park. The Queenslink proposal is somewhat awkward (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), but the Queensway one is completely drunk. Look at the satellite photo above and compare to that of the High Line:

  1. The area is full of greenery and recreation already, easily accessible from adjoining areas. Moreover, many residents live in houses with backyards.
  2. The density is moderate at the ends (Forest Hills and Woodhaven) and fairly low in between, with all these parks, cemeteries, and neighborhoods of single-family houses and missing middle density. Thus, local usage is unlikely to be high. Nor is this area anyone’s destination – there are some jobs at the northern margin of the area along Queens Boulevard (the wide road signed as Route 25 just north of the LIRR) but even then the main job concentrations in Queens are elsewhere.
  3. There is no real reason someone should use this as a hiking trail unless they want to hike it twice, one way and then back. The nearest viable parallel transit route, Woodhaven, is a bus rather than a subway.

The idea of a park is always enticing to local neighborhood NIMBYs. It’s land use that only they get to have, designed to be useless to outsiders; it is also at most marginally useful to neighborhood residents, but neighborhood politics is petty and centers exclusion of others rather than the actual benefits to residents, most of whom either don’t know their self-appointed neighborhood advocates or quietly loathe them and think of them as Karens and Beckies. Moreover, the neighborhood residents don’t pay for this – it’s a city project, a great opportunity to hog at the trough of other people’s money. Not for nothing, the Queensway website talks about how this is a community-supported solution, a good indication that it is a total waste of money.

But in reality, this is not going to be a useful park. The first park in a neighborhood is nice. The second can be, too. The fifth is just fallow land that should be used for something more productive, which can be housing, retail, or in this case a transportation artery for other people (since there aren’t enough people within walking distance of a trail to justify purely local use). The city should push back against neighborhood boosters who think that what worked in the Manhattan core will work in their explicitly anti-Manhattan areas, and preserve the right-of-way for future subway or commuter rail expansion.

It’s Easy to Waste Money

As we’re finalizing edits on our New York and synthesis reports, I’m rereading about Second Avenue Subway. In context, I’m stricken by how easy it is to waste money – to turn what should be a $600 million project into a $6 billion one or what should be a $3 billion project into a $30 billion one. Fortunately, it is also not too hard to keep costs under control if everyone involved with the project is in on the program and interested in value engineering. Unfortunately, once promises are made that require a higher budget figure, getting back in line looks difficult, because one then needs to say “no” to a lot of people.

This combination – it’s easy to stay on track, it’s easy to fall aside, it’s hard to get back on track once one falls aside – also helps explain some standard results in the literature about costs. There’s much deeper academic literature about cost overruns than absolute costs; the best-known reference is the body of work of Bent Flyvbjerg about cost overruns (which in his view are not overruns but underestimations – i.e. the real cost was high all along and the planners just lied to get the approval), but the work of Bert van Wee and Chantal Cantarelli on early commitment as a cause of overruns is critical to this as well. In van Wee and Cantarelli, once an extravagant promise is made, such a 300 km/h top speed on Dutch high-speed rail, it’s hard to walk it back even if it turns out to be of limited value compared with its cost. But equally, there are examples of promises made that have no value at all, or sometimes even negative value to the system, and are retained because of their values to specific non-state actors, such as community advocacy, which are incorrectly treated as stakeholders rather than obstacles to be removed.

In our New York report, we include a flashy example of $20 million in waste on the project: the waste rock storage chamber. The issue is that tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) in principle work 24/7; in practice they constantly break down (40% uptime is considered good) and require additional maintenance, but this can’t be predicted in advance or turned into a regular cycle of overnight shutdowns, and therefore, work must be done around the clock either way. This means that the waste rock has to be hauled out around the clock. The agency made a decision to be a good neighbor and not truck out the muck overnight – but because the TBM had to keep operating overnight, the contractor was required to build an overnight storage chamber and haul it all away with a platoon of trucks in the morning rush hour. The extra cost of the chamber and of rush hour trucking was $20 million.

Another $11 million is surplus extraction at a single park, the Marx Brothers Playground. As is common for subway projects around the world, the New York MTA used neighborhood parks to stage station entrances where appropriate. Normally, this is free. However, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation viewed this as a great opportunity to get other people’s money; the MTA had to pay NYC Parks $11 million to use one section of the playground, which the latter agency viewed as a great success in getting money. Neither agency viewed the process as contentious; it just cost money.

But both of these examples are eclipsed by the choice of construction method for the stations. Again in order to be a good neighbor, the MTA decided to mine two of the project’s three stations, instead of opening up Second Avenue to build cut-and-cover digs. Mined stations cost extra, according to people we’ve spoken to at a number of agencies; in New York, the best benchmark is that these two stations cost the same as cut-and-cover 96th Street, a nearly 50% longer dig.

Moreover, the stations were built oversize, for reasons that largely come from planner laziness. The operating side of the subway, New York City Transit, demanded extravagant back-of-the-house function spaces, with each team having its own rooms, rather than the shared rooms typical of older stations or of subway digs in more frugal countries. The spaces were then placed to the front and back of the platform, enlarging the digs; the more conventional place for such spaces is above the platform, where there is room between the deep construction level and the street. Finally, the larger of the two station, 72nd Street, also has crossovers on both sides, enlarging the dig even further; these crossovers were included based on older operating plans, but subsequent updates made them no longer useful, and yet they were not descoped. Each station cost around $700 million, which could have been shrunk by a factor of three, keeping everything else constant.

Why are they like this?

They do not care. If someone says, “Give me an extra,” they do not say, “no.” It’s so easy not to care when it’s a project whose value is so obvious to the public; even with all this cost, the cost per rider for Second Avenue Subway is pretty reasonable. But soon enough, norms emerge in which the appearance of neighborhood impact must always be avoided (but the mined digs still cause comparable disruption at the major streets), the stations must be very large (but passengers still don’t get any roomy spaces), etc. Projects that have less value lose cost-effectiveness, and yet there is no way within the agency to improve them.

Who Through-Running is For

Shaul Picker is working on an FAQ for the benefit of people in the New York area about the concept of commuter rail through-running and what it’s good for. So in addition to contributing on some specific points, I’d like to step back for a moment and go over who the expected users are. This post needs to be thought of as a followup from what I wrote a month ago in which I listed the various travel markets used by modern commuter rail in general, making the point that this is a predominantly urban and inner-suburban mode, in which suburban rush hour commuters to city center are an important but secondary group, even where politically commuter rail is conceived of as For the Suburbs in opposition to the city, as in Munich. My post was about all-day frequency, but the same point can be made about the physical infrastructure for through-running, with some modifications.

The overall travel markets for regional rail

The assumption throughout is that the city region has with a strong center. This can come from a few square kilometers of city center skyscrapers, as is the norm in the United States (for example, in New York, Chicago, or Boston, but not weaker-centered Los Angeles), or from a somewhat wider region with office mid-rises, as is the norm in European cities like Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, and Berlin. Berlin is polycentric in the sense of having different job centers, including Mitte, City-West at the Zoo, and increasingly Friedrichshain at Warschauer Strasse, but these are all within the Ring, and overall this inner zone dominates citywide destinations. In cities like this, the main travel markets for commuter rail are, in roughly descending order of importance,

  • Urban commuter trips to city center
  • Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
  • Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
  • Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional mid-20th century work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
  • Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
  • Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional mid-20th century hours
  • Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes

I center urban commuter trips because even in places with extensive suburbanization, commutes are more urban than suburban. Long Island, an unusually job-poor, commuter-oriented suburb, has 2.9 million people as of the 2020 census and, per OnTheMap, 191,202 Manhattan-bound commuters and 193,536 outer borough-bound commuters. Queens has 2.4 million people, 871,253 in-city commuters, 384,223 Manhattan-bound commuters, and 178,062 commuters to boroughs other than itself and Manhattan. The Metro-North suburbs – Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, and Fairfield Counties (New Haven omitted as it’s not really a suburb) – have 2.35 million people and 143,862 Manhattan-bound commuters and 79,821 outer borough-bound commuters. To work regionwide, commuter rail needs to be usable by the largest commute market; it’s urban rail that’s capable of also serving the suburbs without building suburban metro tunnels, rather than predominantly suburban rail.

Through-running

Through-running means that trains run from one side of the region to the other through city center, rather than terminating at a traditional city terminal. Rarely, this means running trains through a city center station that already has through-tracks, like Penn Station or Stockholm Central; usually, this requires building new tunnels to connect different terminals, as it would to get to Grand Central and as it did in the other European comparison cases.

This rearranges the travel markets for commuter rail, but only somewhat. The largest group, urban commuters to city center, shrinks somewhat: terminating trains to some extent already serve it. The qualifiers come from the fact that city center is rarely entirely within walking distance of the terminal; it is in Stockholm, but it’s small and I suspect the reason Stockholm’s monocentric CBD is walking distance from the intercity station is that it opened as a through-station in 1871 already. In Boston, most of the CBD is close to South Station, but much of it isn’t, and little is within walking distance of North Station. In New York, the CBD is large enough that service to multiple destinations is desirable when feasible, for example both East Side and West Side destinations in Midtown and even Lower Manhattan, requiring additional through-running commuter rail tunnels.

What really shines with through-running is urban trips that are not commutes, or are commutes to a near-center destination on the wrong side of the CBD (for example, south of it for commuters from Uptown Manhattan or the Bronx). New York is unusually asymmetric in that there’s much more city east of Manhattan than west of it, where there’s just the urban parts of Hudson County and Newark. But even there, New Jersey-Brooklyn and New Jersey-Queens commutes matter, as do Bronx-Brooklyn commutes.

This image was made for a 2017 article and is as of 2015; numbers as of the eve of corona are different and somewhat higher.

Even then, the urban commutes are significant: there are 55,000 commuters from the Bronx to Manhattan south of 23rd Street. These in-city travel markets are viable by subway today, but are for the most part slow even on the express trains – the A train’s run from Inwood to Jay Street and the 4’s run from Woodlawn to Brooklyn Bridge are both scheduled to take 45 minutes for 22.5 km, an average speed of 30 km/h. And then the New Jersey-to-outer borough commutes are largely unviable by public transportation – they cost double because there’s no fare integration between PATH and the subway and the transfers are onerous and slow, and besides, PATH’s coverage of the urban parts of North Jersey leaves a lot to be desired.

Adapting the city

Berlin is in a way the most S-Bahn-oriented city I know of. It’s polycentric but all centers are within the Ring and close to either the Stadtbahn or (for Potsdamer Platz) the North-South Tunnel. This shouldn’t be surprising – the Stadtbahn has been running since the 1880s, giving the city time to adapt to it, through multiple regime changes, division, and reunification. Even Paris doesn’t quite compare – the RER’s center, Les Halles, is a retail but not job center, and the five-line system only has two CBD stops, the RER A’s Auber and the RER E’s Haussmann-Saint-Lazare.

Can New York become more like Berlin if it builds through-running? The answer is yes. Midtown would remain dominant, and overall the region would become less rather than more polycentric as better commuter rail service encouraged job growth in the Manhattan core. But it’s likely any of the following changes would grow the market for commuter rail to take advantage of through-running over time:

  • Job growth in Lower Manhattan, which has struggled with office vacancy for decades
  • Job growth in non-CBD parts of Manhattan that would become accessible, like Union Square, or even Midtown South around Penn Station, which is lower-rise than the 40s and 50s
  • Job growth in near-center job centers – Downtown Brooklyn may see a revival, and Long Island City is likely to see a larger upswing than it is already seeing if it becomes more accessible from New Jersey and not just the city
  • Residential location adjustment – Brooklyn workers may choose to depend on the system and live in the Bronx or parts of New Jersey with good service instead of moving farther out within Brooklyn or suburbanizing and driving to work
  • Residential transit-oriented development near outlying stations, in urban as well as suburban areas

Quick Note on My New York Trip

I am back in Europe now (in London until Tuesday), but I was in New York for nearly three weeks, and it was interesting reconciling what I was seeing with what everyone else is saying about the city. It and my March 2022 trip were both enlightening in a way because I’d last been in the US at the end of 2019, so many New Yorkisms that I was used to in the 2000s and 2010s suddenly jarred me as foreign to what I had grown used to in Europe.

As one might expect based on the subject of this blog, I took the subway a lot. I took it so much that I was using weekly passes, and the last week I had a weekly pass for just three days and still I took 13 trips on those days, justifying its cost (which is like that of 12 single trips). I saw things, and notably didn’t see others.

What I did see: abject unreliability. I snapped a photo whenever the train arrival board was showing something weird, like low frequency or bunching; if you’re reading this post as it’s being posted and not going on a deep archive run, then go to my Twitter media and look at the last few weeks of pictures. Out of 19 days, something was going wrong 10 times, usually on the train I used to get between my Queensbridge hotel and Marron, the F train – and that’s without counting a few trips when the train frequency looked good but then I was delayed 10-20 minutes due to incidents. Something would always come up: signal failure, medical emergency, mechanical failure, cascading delays. Uday Schultz, a railfan who scares me with the depth of his knowledge of operations, maintenance, and rail history, points out how one such delay compounded due to bad interlining.

This is not normal. Berlin has delays but nowhere nearly this often – not on the U-Bahn but also not on the S-Bahn, whose interlining complexity is comparable to that of the New York City Subway. Low-frequency sections due to single-tracking for maintenance exist in Berlin, but it’s rare, and trains do not run worse than every 10 minutes except on the suburban periphery of the city. Over a similar period of time in Berlin I might see an incident bad enough to complain to BVG about it on Twitter maybe once or twice, not 10 times.

What I didn’t see: significant crime. I point out that I was staying near Queensbridge because the area is negatively stereotyped by suburbanites and city residents with I-hate-(the-rest-of-)the-city identity politics. Nothing there looked scary, at any time of day. There’s a large housing project there, which I mostly associate with people playing the Halloween theme song on 10/31 for what I imagine was a showing of the film and with some people wearing delightfully scary costumes. The worst I saw was someone selling swipes illegally when there was an unusually long line for the ticketing machines; there were cops on the platform who must have passed this person by and apparently done nothing.

I point this out because the city is convinced that the subway is dangerous. There are annoying announcements all the time: “this is an important message from the New York City Police Department…” It makes for some awful user experience – there’s no possibility of quiet on the train, for which those announcements contribute more than anything, since the panhandlers are much less common and the background noise is easier to tune out. People who speak limited English or can’t make out the phonemes garbled over bad announcer systems learn to tune everything out, including the occasional useful announcement of service changes.

And the police loves how annoying it is, which it justifies by appealing to safety theater. When Sarah Meyer tried reducing the annoyance levels, she ran into some real and some made-up technical problems, and one political problem in that nobody in management cares about UX. The police said they need those announcements, annoying and counterproductive as they are (telling tourists to watch their belongings gets them to grasp their wallets in fear, alerting every thief to the location of the wallet on their person); nobody at the agency thought to push back. In the last few days, a new disturbance has been added: the conductors announce at nearly every stop that cops are on the platform should people need assistance. This is in a safe city. Just stop this.

Quick Note on Transit Expansion and Development

I’ve been thinking a lot about where subway extensions can go in New York. One of the appendices we’re likely to include down the line in the Transit Costs Project is a proposal for what New York could do if its construction costs were more reasonable, and this means having to think about plausible extensions. Leaving aside regional rail and systematic investments for now, this may roughly be it:

The full-size image (warning: 52 MB) can be found here.

The costs depicted are about twice as high as what I wrote in 2019 with Nordic costs as the baseline, because nominal Nordic costs have doubled since then, partly due to updating price levels from the early 2010s to the early 2020s, but mostly because of the real cost explosion in the Nordic countries. These costs are about $200 million/km in outlying areas, $300 million/km in Manhattan or across water, somewhat less than $100 million/km above ground or in an open trench, and higher than $300 million/km when reconstruction of existing tunnel complexes is proposed; everything is rounded to the nearest $100 million, which creates some rounding artifacts for short extensions that cancel one another out.

But the precise map is not what I think is the most interesting. The point is to build to the frontier of the cost per rider that is acceptable in American cities today, so by definition the marginal line for inclusion on the map, such as the D extension to Gun Hill Road to meet with the 2 train, is also socioeconomically marginal. What I think is more interesting is how important transit-oriented development is for the prospects of lines beyond the most obvious ones (Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, 125th Street, Utica, Nostrand, IBX, and maybe also the 7 to College Point).

The current land use in New York is largely frozen from the middle of the 20th century; the 1961 zoning law was the watershed. Since then, change has been slow, in contrast with rapid redevelopment in places that have chosen a pro-growth path. If the pace of change stays slow, then fewer lines are viable; if the city instead chooses not to keep anti-developmental neighborhood interests in the loop, then more are.

This, in turn, feeds into growth plans. Nordic and Italian planning bundles the question of where the regional housing growth goes with where the subway goes. (Our other positive case study, Turkey, works differently; the answer to both questions is “everywhere.”) This means that subway service goes to areas where substantial quantities of transit-oriented development will be permitted and built, often in negotiations with NIMBY municipalities that would rather just get the infrastructure without the housing; in Stockholm the scale involved is tens of thousands of units per tranche of Nya Tunnelbanan.

In the case of New York, this affects the shape of the map above more than anything. The 6 extension to Coop City is likely good either way, but the other radial extensions in the Bronx are more questionable and depend on where new housing in the borough will be built. The same is true in Queens: more housing in Northeast Queens may argue even in favor of further lines not depicted on the map, for example extending the 7 even further.